It’s old news—America is overweight. The US has been struggling with an obesity epidemic for decades now, and for all the millions of dollars we spend on weight loss programs and gym membership, we sure don’t have a lot to show for it. The consequences of this epidemic have been far-reaching and profound, appearing in our infrastructure, education, and healthcare systems. Some are calling this proliferation in plus-sized people a public health crisis and vying for more laws to make it easier to mind what’s in our food. Others, though, are pushing back hard against the idea that the government should be telling people what to eat. From food manufacturing lobbyists to states-rights activists, some are furious that the government is taking any stake in the American diet whatsoever.
Nonetheless, some cities and states and even the FDA have taken steps to curtail the way Americans overeat, from taxes to laws to outright bans.
Several counties in the state of New York outright banned the use of trans fats in the preparation of foods, citing studies about their implication in heart problems. Naturally occurring fats like the ones in animals or milk are generally safe for consumption in moderation, but trans fats are made in a lab by combining vegetable oil with hydrogen to solidify it. Cheaper and faster to produce, trans fats hit the market before the research caught up with them, and unfortunately, they were found to wreak havoc on cholesterol levels and increase a person’s risk of heart attack. Once 11 counties in NY banned the substance, their admittance rate for heart attacks in the ER went down by nearly 10% compared with the 25 counties with no such ban. A nation-wide trans fat ban will kick into effect in June of 2018, citing serious public health concerns and studies that have found that trans fats are no longer generally recognized as safe.
In addition, Philadelphia imposed a highly controversial “sugar tax” on its residents that adds 1.5 cents per ounce to the cost of unhealthful beverages. While unpopular among both sugary-drink consumers and soft drink companies, the bill was meant to both curb the obesity plague on the city and support pre-K and elementary education with the new income source. While it’s only been in effect for a year, there are already preliminary studies that consumers have indeed chosen more healthful options as a result of the price hike. A similar law in Berkley that imposed a 1 cent per fluid ounce tax on soda resulted in a 10% drop in soda sales and 16% increase in water and other less-sugary drinks.
Most recently, an Obama-era rule that was part of the Obamacare package has gone into effect this week: now, restaurants that have over 20 locations open must print the caloric value of each item they offer on the menu. As one could imagine, the intended purpose of passing a law of this nature in tandem with an overhaul of the US healthcare system is to help consumers make better health choices not only for their weight but also for cardiovascular health, too.
The FDA already put this law on hold once in 2017 after a petition from the likes of 711, Sheetz, and Wawa noted that the rule was unclear for “prepared food” like pre-made sandwiches made for grab-and-go customers. The pizza industry, too, fought this law at every possible step in the process, noting that their a la carte options for crusts and toppings would make it impossible to provide the information the law mandates they disclose. However, after revisiting the wording, the FDA decided to continue with the mandate regardless.
Already, some chains have elected to voluntarily advertise the caloric value of their foods, which has anecdotally changed consumer behavior. Not only have restaurants increased the sales of lower-calorie foods, but they’ve begun selling more low-calorie options to keep up with consumer demands. Jon Tappert of the reality show Bar Rescue remarked on a Fox interview that he thinks these labels will actually improve business by allowing restaurants to provide a better dining experience to their patrons.
The effects of these new labeling laws are yet to be determined. Although smaller studies have attempted to capture the results of enacting such sweeping labeling requirements, they’ve been inconclusive at best.